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How COVID-19 Has Changed the Future of Work in the Industrial Sector

This is the first part of a multi-part blog series.



We had lofty visions for what the future of work (FoW) would look like for the industrial sector. It has been a hot discussion topic for the last 10 years.

Then COVID-19 hit, and we had to rapidly adapt to a new paradigm with almost no notice.

Now that everyone has had few months to breathe (wear your masks in public!) and adapt to this “new normal,” let’s look back on what happened and then project a bit on what the new FoW vision is in this post-COVID world. 

How has the industrial sector’s vision for the FoW changed? The most significant difference we have seen is in the forcing function for change, while the technologies underpinning the vision remain the same.

Pre-COVID

Pre-COVID, we envisioned the forcing functions for adopting features of the FoW vision would be driven mainly by profitability, productivity, and employee satisfaction. We saw the main underlying technology as the Internet of Things (IoT), reinforcing learning systems such as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) that would develop at an exponential rate. Companies would slowly adopt the tools necessary to drive massive change. The external support systems that would be necessary for a society to adopt this future were only at the beginning stages of construction, but would be built over the next five to 10 years.

Then COVID hit. Everyone was abruptly forced into adopting some of the primary features of the FoW vision—such as remote operations—before most were ready. The forcing functions were not profitability, productivity, or employee satisfaction. The forcing functions were resiliency, safety, and necessity.

Some of the tools we needed were ready, but they were untested or even undeveloped at many companies. The external support systems that we wanted in place were not ready for prime time. Even worse, many of the basic support systems we all relied on in the old work paradigm—such as childcare—disappeared or were severely curtailed.

Post-COVID: Adaptation for Survival

This epochal event left many organizations scrambling to adapt and survive. Those that had already put remote operations in place were ahead of the game. The rest were figuring out how to adapt to cloud infrastructures and install remote monitoring and control systems while keeping their business going. Some companies are still going through this process. From the customers and end users we work with, the success stories of those who were prepared ahead of time—and those who have reacted quickly—tell the importance of IoT and ML/AI in monitoring and controlling operations as safely as possible.

In the next blog post, we will discuss how leading companies are using IoT and ML/AI solutions to enable remote operations today, how this will empower companies to maintain the resiliency and safety that forced adoption, and how companies can provide some of the long-term benefits from the pre-COVID FoW vision of increased profitability, productivity, and employee satisfaction.


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About the Authors

Prabhu Soundarrajan is an executive board member of the International Society of Automation (ISA) and a product general manager at Honeywell. He can be reached at prabhu.soundarrajan@gmail.com. Ben Murphy is a managing partner at Fasterfuture.org, which helps companies future-proof by taking advantage of new opportunities through technology. He can be reached at ben.murphy@fasterfuture.org.


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